San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Electoral System Sputters as More Claims of Fraud Surface

As allegations of vote fraud and other irregular behavior continue to surface following the March 7 regional elections in the North and South Atlantic Autonomous Regions (RAAN and RAAS, respectively), Roberto Courtney, executive director of electoral watchdog group Ethics and Transparency, insists the simmering electoral scandal is further proof that Nicaragua has “the worst and least credible electoral system in all of Latin America.”

Conducting elections, Courtney said, “Is not like playing baseball, where you can go three for 10 and make the Hall of Fame. It’s more like landing a plane: you have to do it safely every time.”

But following the highly disputed 2008 municipal elections, which were dubbed the “most documented case of electoral fraud in Latin American history,” Courtney said “the burden of proof has shifted” and Nicaraguans can no longer presume that elections will be conducted fairly here, especially when the electoral authorities continue to prevent implementation of basic safeguards for transparency.

For example, despite the widespread cries of fraud following the 2008 elections, which were conducted without any credible outside observers, the Supreme Electoral Council (CSE) again ignored requests from national and international groups to monitor last Sunday’s elections. So it came as little surprise this week when unofficial observers and opposition political groups claimed the polls were again tainted with many of the same irregularities that plagued the 2008 elections.

The only group accredited to observe last weekend’s voting to elect 96 members of the two regional autonomous councils was the Center for Human, Citizen and Autonomous Rights (CEDHECA), whose regional leadership has known overlaps with Sandinista organizations. For example, Danilo Chang, the head of CEDHECA’s programs and projects department in Bluefields, the regional capital of the RAAS, is the same “Compañero Danilo Chang” who heads the Sandinistas’ Institute of Youth (INJUVE) in the RAAS.

Though no official winners had been announced by press time, preliminary tallies showed the Sandinistas poised to win in the RAAN and the Liberal Constitutional Party (PLC) to claim victory in the RAAS.

With 87 percent of the ballots counted, the Sandinistas had 43.8 percent in the RAAN, followed by 28.5 percent for the PLC and 13.9 percent for the indigenous party YATAMA.

In the RAAS, meanwhile, the PLC was leading with 37.4 percent of the vote, followed closely by the Sandinistas, with 34.5 percent. The Nicaraguan Liberal Alliance (ALN) was in third place, with 12.4 percent of the vote.

Still, it was unclear this week when – or if – the final results would be published by the CSE, which still hasn’t published the final results of the 2008 municipal poll.

“It’s still too early to say there has not been systematic fraud,” Courtney told The Nica Times, implying that the CSE has already lost the benefit of the doubt.

The PLC, which has been preemptively denouncing the elections as fraudulent since January, issued a list of concerns after the polls closed Sunday evening.

The opposition party alleged, among other things, instances of double voting, illegal voting by unregistered voters, ballots being tampered with before election day, and tabulated vote tallies being turned over to Sandinista activists instead of proper electoral authorities.

One of the more serious concerns raised was that the so-called “indelible ink” that all voters must dip their thumbs into after voting (to prevent double voting) was washing off people’s hands with a bit of soap and water.

Courtney claims the use of “faulty ink” was not a mistake, rather a ploy used in certain voting districts with a clear partisan preference to allow particular voters to cast multiple ballots.

Yet despite the loud concerns raised before, during and after the elections, the authorities of the embattled CSE have remained unfazed, as always.

In fact, just three days before the election, CSE president Roberto Rivas, who is under investigation in Costa Rica for corruption, and two other electoral magistrates were seen in a beach restaurant on Big Corn Island, slurping down lobster tails and polishing off an expensive bottle of Grand Old Parr Whisky during a long and woozy lunch break after dropping off ballots on the island.

The Sandinistas, who adamantly defend the job performance of Rivas and have proposed his reelection as head of the CSE, dismissed concerns of vote fraud this week. Sandinista lawmaker Edwin Castro said the opposition was just “crying wolf.”

Sandinista allies also remained quiet. Brooklyn Rivera, the head of the YATAMA group allied with the Sandinista Front, told The Nica Times this week that he thought last Sunday’s elections were “more orderly and transparent than the ’09 municipal elections” on the Caribbean coast, which were also denounced as fraudulent.

For Courtney, however, the numerous allegations and suspicions of fraud, coupled with one of the highest voter-abstention levels ever, are all symptoms of a dying electoral system.

Regardless of what the CSE pronounces in terms of winners and losers of last weekend’s vote, Courtney says it is abundantly clear that Nicaragua needs a new electoral system run by new authorities.

Returning to his plane metaphor, Courtney says “The current electoral system can’t deliver a safe landing.”

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